Atlas Restaurant, long an oasis of hospitality in the southwest corner of the CWE, has changed ownership. Founders Jean Donnelly and Michael Roberts built a lively neighborhood spot by greeting patrons personally and serving delicious French-Italian cuisine. Taking over the reins are culinary couple Bryan and Diane Carr, of Pomme fame.
The Carrs plan to keep things pretty much the same, they say, adjusting the menu seasonally to what is fresh in the marketplace. The ambience is casual bistro, with pricing that hovers around the $20 mark for creative continental dishes like chicken breast over polenta, pork filets with grain mustard and cornichons, and duck breast with cherries and potato croquette.
A recent visit underscored Atlas’ appeal. The service is friendly and knowledgeable, and the food is reliably good, with enough interest to keep you coming back. Additionally, the ambience is warm and comfortable, if a little crowded. Inside, a banquette along the wall and tables scattered around the adjoining dining and bar rooms are a little close, but that’s a bistro for you. A handful of tables on the front patio have an appealing urban vibe and enough tree cover to be doable, even with our hot summers.
From the small appetizer menu, we chose Atlas Crab Cake with Fennel and Capers ($8.50) and Crispy Eggplant with Piperade and Arugula ($8). The crab cake was deliciously creamy and lemony. Forgoing the usual bell pepper-breadcrumb treatment, this one had delicately flaked white crabmeat mixed with aioli and a very light breading. The crab flavor really came through, as did a barely discernable bite. Tangy fennel slaw and capers accompanied the patty, cutting its creaminess with their vinaigrette.
The eggplant, three large slices with a divine grainy breading, were excellent. They were well fried, neither oily nor mushy. A pungent ‘piperade’—a Basque saute of green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes—came on the side, and a little spicy arugula.
Of the 10 entrees on the menu, we had Filet of Trout with Preserved Lemon Sauce ($20) and Grilled Lamb Chops with Tomato Coulis ($23). The trout was amazing, both the fish itself and its accompaniments. A very fresh, clean-tasting fish (skinless and headless) sat amid a pool of lemony cream somewhat reminiscent of hollandaise but much lighter. It had little if any butter, and relied on a touch of cream and the intense lemon zestiness provided by preserved (brined) lemon. It came with a mild zucchini concasse (coarse mash) that didn’t compete with the sauce.
The lamb chops, two thick loin cuts, came nicely grilled, meaty and juicy. Also on the plate were large rounds of grilled zucchini, a little mint sauce and a delicious tomato coulis that served to cut the natural fat of lamb with its acid. A side dish of Wilted Escarole and Spinach with Pine Nuts, Currants and Lemon was a flavorful and satisfying accompaniment.
Atlas offers a tempting dessert menu of eight or so items made in house. We chose Butterscotch Pudding ($6) and Tibka’s Chocolate Cake ($7). The pudding was very dense, like crème brulee, and almost as rich. Its predominant flavor was brown sugar, and it was too sweet for my taste. A few very nicely done candied walnuts on top helped a little to cut the sugar.
The cake was an impressive torte of multiple layers reminiscent of the Hungarian Dobos torte. Thin layers of chocolate cake were separate by chunky apricot preserves, creamy caramel and chocolately ganache. While the concept was impressive, the cake was a little dry (too much time in the fridge?), bursting my bubble of anticipation. A small scoop of vanilla ice cream saved the day by adding some needed moisture.
While the desserts didn’t live up to the savory parts of our meal, Atlas under its new ownership did not disappoint. The dishes are delicious and reasonably priced, and in some cases plentiful for the price. But most of all, the place has retained the warm and inviting character that has made it a favorite of so many.
CHICKEN WITH CURRANTS AND PINE NUTS OVER POLENTA FROM ATLAS
2 cups cornmeal
4 ½ cups water
2 ounces butter
¼ cup parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Bring water to a boil in a two-quart stockpot. Slowly add cornmeal while whisking constantly. Turn heat to low and use a wooden spoon to stir. Cook for 25 minutes, stirring periodically to keep the polenta from sticking. Incorporate parmesan and butter. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Currant and Pine Nuts Mixture
1 cup olive oil
½ cup pine nuts
¾ cup of currants
¼ cup sliced garlic
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper
In a one-quart saucepot, add olive oil and pine nuts. Brown pine nuts over medium heat, stirring constantly to keep from burning. Add garlic, and cook until edges start to brown. Remove from heat and add currants, sherry vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.
4 chicken breasts, fresh, or thawed if frozen
4 basil leaves, chopped or sliced into thin strips
Salt and pepper chicken breasts and cook using your preferred method.
Spoon the polenta onto the center of the plate. Slice each chicken breast into three pieces and fan over the polenta. Top with pine nuts and currant mixture. Garnish with chopped basil.